Professor Peter Rendell has been part of ACU’s evolution for over 35 years. We talk to him about the fundamental shifts in academia and the challenges of building a research reputation mid-career.
Professor Peter Rendell has been part of ACU’s evolution for over 35 years. He was a lecturer in Psychology at Christ College, Melbourne, before it amalgamated with other colleges to establish Australian Catholic University (ACU) in 1991. Peter completed his PhD in 1995 and then transitioned from teaching/leadership to a research-focussed career.
“Change has been the constant feature of working at ACU. When I started, an electrical typewriter with a corrector ribbon was the innovation that we were very excited about!” Peter said.
“Whilst completing my Masters – it could take two weeks to two months to get articles in via inter-library loans. A big milestone of a thesis was to give a hand-written manuscript to a typist to type up - and the graphs were all hand-drawn.”
Peter says that during his career, advances in technology and instant electronic access to scholarly resources have made monumental improvements to the nature of study and work. These developments have also changed the speed and standard expected of student and academic work.
“What is expected now of a post-doctoral level - was almost your Professorship standard years ago,” he said.
While it is great to have the latest technological devices at our fingertips, Peter believes staff tend to be much more office-bound now. He says it is important to find proactive ways to interact with people both locally and across the University to foster a collaborative environment.
“In the days when we had a common pigeon-hole area on campus, people had to check their pigeon-holes regularly and this is where many conversations happened,” he said.
Peter says the importance of incidental interactions has become even clearer to him over the past decade as he has changed career direction and worked to establish himself as a research academic. He is thankful for a fortunate start to his transition – his thesis supervisor (Professor Don Thomson) was renowned in the field and opened doors to valuable collaboration at an international level.
“My supervisor set up a six-month visit (OSP leave funded by ACU) to work with one of the most eminent researchers in cognitive aging and memory - Professor Fergus Craik at University of Toronto.
“A number of valuable long-term collaborators arose from these introductions. Sometimes it’s about capitalising on these, along with those momentary interactions you might have with people at conferences; when you sense that there is a connection and you build on it. A good connection with one person can often lead to a good connection with someone else… ”
Having mentors and collaborators is crucial; but Peter also acknowledges that changing his career pathway took a lot of persistence over many years, to move towards long-term results.
“When I think back to 2004, I was working very long hours and it took over five years to gain momentum as a researcher and build a track record to the level needed to attract substantial support and to apply for competitive research grant funding,” he said.
Through hard work and determination, Peter has been successful in attracting four ARC Discovery Research Grants worth over $1million in total, and has published in many high-impact journals.
“Whilst there are increasing challenges for research academics; one of the great things is we still have considerable freedom of choice in what we research, and who we research with.”
Peter said the move towards research intensification at ACU has brought in a number of senior researchers who are leaders in their fields, presenting increased opportunities for high-level collaboration within ACU, and serendipitous connections to be fostered internationally.
“Having international collaborators can boost chances for attracting external funding, but researchers often need to demonstrate the collaboration by having co-authored papers,” he said.
“This is especially important for early career researchers. The more opportunities there are to connect with leading researchers, the more that is going to help you with your grant applications.
“In my own case, every single one of my successful applications for ARC grants has had one, two, or even three internationally-renowned researchers collaborating on the application.”
Peter says there’s a shifting perception about the capacity of ACU’s academics to develop their track record and be at the forefront of research. He hopes that his most satisfying collaborative achievement - the ACU Cognition and Emotion Research Lab - can help to demonstrate what is possible within the University. The group, co-founded and now co-directed with Dr Gill Terrett, was initially established as an informal meeting group for students with similar research interests. It has since evolved into a well-funded lab, breaking new ground in cognitive neuropsychological research.
“About five years ago we started the group. Since then, it has evolved into a lab which has 30 research students and five academics - with recent funding for a Project Officer, two Post-Doctorate Research Fellows, and an International Professorial Research Fellow,” Peter said.
“During 2009-2013, the five academics in this group published a total of 70 papers; and when we’re talking about quality, they've had an average impact of 3.7. This is making a substantial contribution to the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) rating in Psychology.”
The lab recently received an ACU research funding (ACU RF) grant for $1.2 million, and collaborates with Professor David Thompson’s cardiovascular group on another ACU RF grant worth $2.9 million. Two of the lab’s PhD students - Kimberly Mercuri and Susan Sapega - won the first and second prize in the 2013 ACU Three Minute Thesis. PhD student Tina Habota also won a $1,000 presenter prize at the recent World Cardiology Congress.
There are times when research work requires a lot of repetitive slog, and Peter says watching his students grow in their skills and success is very rewarding, and has helped him to stay focussed.
Peter’s key learnings from making the transition to research:
Seek out and give priority to productive and strong collaborations: “To achieve high-quality outputs in Psychology it is crucial that you don’t just seek collaborators that are similar to you. I think it is very important to have collaborators with complementary expertise. Ideally you can create a team that has people who are good at the writing, good at the progression of the paper, people who are good at ideas, people good at the data analysis. With so many projects you need to be knowledgeable in a number of areas. To hit the high journals you need to write a paper with expertise in several aspects - by having a good team you can tackle that."
Celebrate even the small victories: “As well as trying to find collaborators that best complement your skill-set, also important to compliment your collaborators. In my group, whenever we get a paper in, we get excited. You should make an effort to acknowledge your collaborators when they have their successes. If you’re going to get a lot of rejections – you’ve got to celebrate the wins!”
Be persistent when rejected: “If anything, that element of academic life has increased – rejection of grant applications or manuscript submissions. I still feel the pain of rejection. We often need to re-submit papers to a second journal - and then acceptance usually comes only after requests for revision. However, I have a collaborator who encourages re-writing and re-submitting as soon as possible, by saying: ‘when you hit the send button for a re-submission, the pain of rejection melts away.’ It’s about picking yourself up after you’ve had a paper rejected and working out ways in which you can adapt it - so that you can use the work you’ve done. I also suggest aiming high with the journal quality for the first submission - sure, rejection rates with these journals are high - but even with rejection, you often get really good feedback from the editor and reviewers.”